It’s stopped. The buildings have gone, the streets are rubble – and now there’s nothing.
At last, the war’s over.
Only it isn’t. The destruction, the horror and the misery repeat themselves – the same images, the same soundtrack – explosions, scared faces, sirens and pools of blood. Talking heads comment on the latest butchery in solemn tones, and everyone’s sick of it.
The bodies came home, then the soldiers came home. Everyone was relieved the war was over – people were looking forward to getting on with their lives – but things turned out differently. We seem to be in unknown territory. Security and media pundits proclaim another kind of war – a struggle that could go on for a lifetime, for generations – the beginning of an epoch of perpetual war.
So? Maybe it was ever so.
From the remote past, a bit of mental flotsam – a semi-fact that’s somehow found a way to lodge itself in memory: ‘In the last two thousand years there have only been thirty-three years of total peace in the world – with no war anywhere.’
This may be fiction – how could anybody know, for God’s sake? – but it holds a truth. It’s hard enough getting a person out of a war – it’s harder getting the war out of the person. Whether we wish it or not, memory is faithful as a shadow. We forget that when memory goes, we go. Without memory, we’re nothing. Somehow, we have to find a way to balance life with memory.
This is the time of year when the past comes back with a special clarity. The sun’s lower in the sky, closer to the horizon. The light’s yellow with dust from the harvest, and everything – the stream and the trees and the hills beyond – seems to shine with an almost biblical radiance – just like Afghanistan, at this time of year, in the mountains. The sunlight’s at the same angle, the leaves are beginning to turn, and by now there’s probably snow in the higher passes. Time’s running out, food supplies are low, and there’s still a long way to go – over the Hindu Kush – before there’s even a chance of a hot bath and some creature comforts.
It was a terrible journey, yet the images from that time are like glimpses of another, earlier existence – in spite of everything, there is still a bright, savage innocence.
The past surfaces unpredictably. Sometimes memory is so immediate the past seems no distance at all. A sight, maybe, a sound or a scent, and in less time than it takes to think, one is in the vanished moment – present in the past.
With luck, memory can be as wonderful as Proust’s delight – the unexpected rediscovery in the fragrance of a morsel of madeleine – a miraculous epiphany. But memory is unreliable. It has a will of its own, and we’re not entirely in control of it.
A barbecue – the smell of burning in the summer air – and, for a second or two, a forgotten corpse is horrifyingly present in the middle of a conversation with a neighbour about the weather.
Swallow – swallow again – and nod.
The moment passes.
Memory slyly conceals itself in the details of daily life – in the fragrance of overripe melons, or the buzz of flies – so, multum in parvo, small things may have great significance. A name or a word can be the entry to another dimension. Once in that other place – an invisible space exactly parallel to everyday existence – it can take some time to get back. It’s like those stories where benighted travellers lie down to sleep on a grassy bank, then wake – years later – to discover everything’s changed around them. Where has the time gone? What happened? Who am I now?
In that other, unseen dimension – a world between worlds – normal time’s irrelevant. Time, if it exists, has a different meaning. Everything is subject to the law of necessity – apparently, there is no choice. Survival. One has to survive – there must be a way – somehow, one has to find the trail. So the search begins, once again, and the hunt is on – it continues until one finds whatever one’s trying to find – nothing else matters. Deeper than hunger, this is the brute imperative of instinct – one has caught the scent and so one keeps on returning to it like a dog.
I love this time of year in Japan. I think of the autumn light in Kyoto, the colours of the maple trees – yellow as gold, and red as blood – and the wood-ash scent of incense in the courtyard of Buddhist temples. I remember the beginning of Matsuo Bashō’s memoir poem, The Narrow Road to the Deep North: ‘The sun and moon are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also travellers.’
The years may forgive or forget, but our nature condemns us to remember – even things we wish to forget.
For some time now I’ve been experimenting – in an utterly unprofessional way – with the past. I’ve been trying to find a way to recreate what’s been lost or forgotten. I carefully examine the fragments I discover – looking for a pattern, trying to make sense of what remains – and maybe find a meaning in what happened long ago.
Time can heal. This is the approximate limit of what I’ve learned so far. But it can also take time for a wound or a disorder to become apparent. With hindsight, maybe someone with the right skills and experience could have recognised what was happening earlier. But it was different then – there wasn’t the level of knowledge there is now – and, unintentionally, I probably helped to delay the diagnosis.
I first realised something was different in Japan. I was working as an investment banker in Tokyo, a girlfriend had come out from England to join me, and we were at one of the summer festivals the Japanese love to celebrate with fireworks. The moon was a perfect parody of the round paper lanterns that still sometimes hang outside old-fashioned Japanese restaurants – pale pink in the last of the sunset, tinged by the chemical glow of the sky over Tokyo. In the twilight, the still-warm air was pungent with the smell of explosives. A chrysanthemum of light blossomed above our heads, a mandala of fire disintegrating in a thunder flash – and another, and another – and then, without warning, the red and white stars dissolved in a watery mist.
What was happening? I was having a great time – fantastic fireworks, in love with a beautiful girl – so why was I crying? These weren’t tears of joy – they were spontaneous, yet strangely emotionless – more like the tears from peeling an onion, a physical reaction to external stimuli. Tara’s upturned face was in profile, lit by another golden chrysanthemum opening above us. She sensed my gaze, and turned towards me. She asked why I was crying, and I said
I didn’t know.
As a boy, I used to hear about men who had a bad time during the war, who did funny things when they heard loud noises. At school there was a master with a short fuse – he’d been at the D-Day landings – and the classroom door slammed with a bang could trigger a volcanic eruption. In our free time we practised the perfect accidental grand slam that would transform the gently humorous man into a red-faced gargoyle of rage.
And the grand slam worked – every time.
My grandfather was also marked by war. He went to Gallipoli in 1915, where he was hit in the hip by a dumdum bullet. Unable to move, he lay in no man’s land for two days and nights, until his sergeant crawled through the wire to find him, and dragged him back to safety.
Thirty years later, the after-images of war still troubled my grandfather. My mother told me about his first meeting with his prospective son-in-law, my father. The omens were ambiguous – there was mutual goodwill, but the older man and the younger man were natural opposites.
Before Gallipoli, my grandfather was in the Scottish rugby team. After the war, he worked in the family business – a company making mining machinery – until eventually, decades later, he was chosen to run the company.
Mining wasn’t in my father’s blood. Nor was business, or money. He was an artist who’d published a slim volume of poetry. He could draw wonderful cartoons of cats and dogs, he was witty and amusing, but he was a different kind of man from my grandfather, waiting in his study after a long day, whisky in hand. My father, young and fashionably dressed, stepped forward nervously to meet his future father-in-law. He was wearing bright red socks. My grandfather greeted my father warmly, then he noticed the scarlet socks. He paused – and without another word he left the room.
The moment my grandfather caught sight of my father’s socks – that terrible flash of scarlet – is vivid in my mind’s eye, as bright as anything I’ve seen in life.
A photograph of my grandfather shows a young man in uniform, barely into his twenties, with long eyelashes and a modest, neatly trimmed moustache. Months later, the bullet shattered his hip, narrowly missing the femoral artery.
What happened in no man’s land? How did the experience shape the man, and influence his first impression of my father? As a classicist, my grandfather probably knew the Greek origin of the word ‘character’: meaning an impression made by something – a seal, or signet ring – in clay or wax. But how much of someone’s character is formed by force of circumstance – and how much by design?
My grandfather kept the shirt of a friend killed beside him in Gallipoli – the shirt had been cleaned, but the stains were unmistakable – and it remained among his clothes until the day he died. As a small boy, I was naturally thrilled to hear about this authentic relic of war – and secretly disappointed to learn my grandmother burned the shirt after my grandfather’s death.
Blood and fire – the ancient elements of war – recur through the generations.
My father could make people helpless with laughter. He saw the absurdity – the utterly pointless rigmarole of the daily dance – and he loved to share the absurdity with others. In this, he was more cartoonist than artist. He was a lanky youth in the Home Guard when the Germans were bombing Bath. On duty during a raid, he found a woman hanging by her legs, trapped in the wreckage of her house. Somehow, he supported her on his shoulders through the night, while the bombs fell and the city burned, until at dawn a rescue party found them. The woman died of her injuries soon afterwards, and my father received a commendation for his courage.
Was that night without sleep the reason why my father was always so sensitive to noise?
My own alertness to certain sounds may be inherited, learned or epigenetic. Whatever the reason, like my father I prefer the quiet of the country – even if the peace is sometimes broken by the noise of planes or helicopters.
My tearful episode at the firework display in Tokyo was puzzling at the time, but it didn’t really bother me – and thinking it over later, the cause was obvious. In the split second of light as the golden chrysanthemum opened, the sudden flash of brightness might have been a Russian flare in Afghanistan.
Travelling by night, we did our best to avoid Russian patrols – they knew we were somewhere in the darkness, but they couldn’t see us. On moonless nights they were particularly alert – or nervous – and flares were more frequent. A fiery trail grazed the darkness, a stark, cold glare, whiter than moonlight, lit up the landscape. The light transfixed us, turning us into statues of stone-like shadow, waiting for it to end in a burst of gunfire, or darkness.
Maybe the noise contributed in some way – the physiological effect of the sound – but whatever it was, the tears were gone soon enough, and it hardly seemed serious. The involuntary response was simply an oddity – a minor side effect of previous excitement – and I didn’t think any more about it.
A few months after the firework festival, I began to write a book about Afghanistan. The book was a modest success, and it seemed as if the Afghan chapter of my life was over.
But, sooner or later, the past comes back – and, one way or another, we remember.
The sun is shining, and the sea is the colour of lapis and emerald – tantalisingly brilliant, like the Mediterranean – only it’s winter, on the Isle of Harris, off the north-west coast of Scotland.
Investment banking’s another world away – my time as an analyst is over – and I’m free.
Apart from a scattering of rubbish tossed up by winter gales, almost everything here is shaped by nature. The coast is shattered by Atlantic storms, the rocky hills and outcrops eroded by wind and rain – it’s a place scoured by the elements. Here, change is measured by the centuries of birth and death in the weather-worn tombs of the kings of Scotland, or by the millennia of the great stone circle of Callanish, with its secrets still waiting for the light. A gentle breeze is blowing, and the waves are rolling in towards the shore. I catch a whiff of something unexpected in the salty air, and without thinking – instantly – I’m there. The dusty rubble buzzing with flies, the invisible aura of the men wearing clothes taken from the bodies of dead Russians – the smell is so close to present reality I tell myself it has to be a hallucination.
A brief, involuntary wave of nausea – then it’s okay, it’s under control.
But why is that smell here – of all places?
The thought, like the sweetly satanic stench in my nostrils, won’t go away. I consider the possibilities – a drowner, maybe – some poor wretch off a ship registered in Panama, or a fisherman torn overboard in a storm. A few paces further on, I reach the crest of a dune and see, half-buried in the sand, the innocent cause of the miasma – the rotting carcass of a seal, black and glistening in the sunlight.
We might hope to avoid the consequences of our actions, but chance is inevitable. Trapped like Jonah by coincidence, the past catches up with us – if one’s unlucky, one may be engulfed.
If one’s lucky, daylight may come again.
My son was in bed upstairs and his mother was reading to him. I was watching a documentary about the Great War. The flickering black-and-white film showed a series of men in uniform, all clearly suffering from some kind of disorder. One stared blankly into the camera, another with a clear, steady gaze seemed perfectly normal – except for the spasm intermittently contorting the muscles of his face.
A clip of a man walking was bizarrely fascinating. Filmed in profile, the man was standing to attention – he stepped forward but, just as he was about to put his foot to the ground, he lifted it abruptly – then lowered it again gently. He stood – as if waiting for a signal – then, very slowly, raised his other foot, but instead of taking another step forward, he stepped diagonally sideways in a great stride – an exaggerated waltz movement – and once again he stood, frozen with obedience or indecision. The man’s jerky, marionette-like movements had nothing to do with the quality of the film – obviously, he was in the grip of something he was powerless to control. It was almost uncanny, as if another independent entity was operating his limbs. In an earlier, more superstitious age, he might have been thought of as possessed by some unclean spirit.
During the Great War, the usual diagnosis for such behaviour was ‘shell shock’. According to medical theory at the time, percussion waves from explosions rocked the skull, bruising or damaging the brain in some way, causing lesions, various kinds of mental conditions and aberrant behaviour.
I watched the man’s agonisingly interrupted walk – even in its random path, there seemed to be a sustained intention – and then I understood. In a flash of recognition, I knew what was going through his mind. In some invisible terrain of the past – in some part of memory over which he seemed to have no conscious control – the man was walking across a minefield.
Once one has walked across an unmapped minefield, a walk in the country is never quite the same again. The ground – the humble surface one has trusted since childhood – has subtly changed its nature. Earth and dust have lost their innocence – the menace they might have concealed can never entirely be forgotten.
During the night, we often walked in single file along a trail. If there were mines, one man walked in front for as long as he was prepared to lead the way – then he fell back, and the next man would take his place. No one said anything. Some men went on for longer than others. Apart from the sick and the laggards, almost everyone took their turn at the front.
At the back of the column, the pace was slower and uneven – there was time to hesitate, and time to remember the possibility of seismic mines with delayed fuses, calculated to trigger at intervals along a length of trail for maximum casualties. Around well-known crossing points there were sometimes other, smaller mines, not much bigger than a pack of cards, scattered here and there. These smaller mines could blow off a foot or a leg, and were meant to slow a force of men while they tended the wounded – or at least wear down morale.
Lingering at the back was risky. One didn’t want to lose contact with the main body of men. The iron rule was clear and had no exception: the group didn’t wait for anyone. At the front, the momentum of the group following close behind made it easier to keep the pace – there wasn’t any time to think, there was no choice – forward, inshallah!
The man in the grainy film, prancing around like a demented ballet dancer, was lost in a minefield. His movements were a perfect interpretation of the conflicting emotions when entering terrain where there might be mines – reluctance, determination, hope, fear, momentary terror, fatalism. In its way, it was an extraordinary performance.
At the end of the documentary, there was a public service announcement. Anyone who thought they might have been affected by issues raised in the programme could contact a helpline.
Had I been affected? I thought of the man, all those years ago, trapped in some unmapped landscape of the mind. At least by now his nightmare must be over.
But the image of the man skipping about like a puppet wouldn’t go away. Slightly to my surprise, I picked up the phone and dialled the number on the screen. A warm, grandmotherly voice answered.
‘Hallo dear, what can I do for you?’
The kindly question took me aback – what was I hoping for? What could this well-intentioned stranger do for me? How could she help me? The questions multiplied.
I must have paused a little too long because I heard the lady’s voice again.
‘Never mind, dear. Let’s start with your name. Could you give me your name, please?’
My name. I’m reluctant to give her my name – it’s not that I mistrust her, but the question raises other questions. Which name? My first name or my second name? My name here – the name on my passport – or my name over there?
I’m in that other territory, now. Careful. Measure the words to the face – otherwise, say nothing. Better safe than sorry.
‘Hallo? Is anyone there?’
In a moment of painful clarity, I see how far there is to go – a far greater distance than I could have imagined – and I don’t know if I have the strength. I haven’t even begun.
It’s dusk, and a barren grey expanse of rocks and sand stretches before us towards the horizon. Somewhere in the gathering darkness, there is a track and we must follow it towards the vanishing ghost of the setting sun.
The voice is gentle, but far away. I can hear the note of friendly concern, but by now I’m much farther away than I can explain to the old lady waiting for me to answer – in another place, in another time. It seems pointless trying – it would take too long, and there’s so little time. Why begin?
The phone’s in my hand, and I look at it.
The voice is even fainter now. I’m rarely lost for words, but now they’re absent. No words. No name. Nothing.
A jolt of dumb emotion hits me so I can hardly breathe. Then, from nowhere, comes grief without words – shock at my inability to even say my own name – a blank sorrow for all that happened in the past.
My silence is unwilled – even so, I know what’s going to happen next and I just have time to watch my hand replace the phone before the tears in my eyes cloud everything. This is the moment I know there’s a problem – not a difficult problem, maybe, but something I don’t understand – an unseen obstacle that gets in the way of what I’m doing, or trying to do.
Before, I had a vague sense of something in the background, now I’m sure. Thanks to the documentary, I can put a name to it – post-traumatic stress disorder – usually shortened to PTSD. The realisation is like a liberation. Oddly, I feel less alone knowing others have been where I am now.
The fifth of November – mulled wine at the local vicarage – and I’m with a Sunday school teacher who’s talking about multi-faith awareness. I drain the last drops of sweet, tepid wine and look around for a refill. The rain’s dripping from the lime trees and lighting the fireworks is getting tricky. Nearby, the vicar’s silhouette is hunched over a smouldering cone – through the patter of raindrops, a muffled swear word – then a dollop of steaming wine pours into my paper cup.
A Roman candle softly belches a series of red, green and blue stars, then there’s a hissing from somewhere in the darkness.
‘Are you all right?’
I look up at the man bending over me – the Sunday school teacher is anxious.
‘What happened? Are you okay?’
I struggle clumsily to my feet. The paper cup’s still in my hand, crushed and empty, and my wrist is drenched with hot, sticky liquid. He looks at the cup and gives me an almost sympathetic smile.
‘Would you like another drink?’ Somehow the intonation of the question suggests I might have had enough mulled wine.
‘Wet leaves,’ I say, ‘incredibly slippery.’
For a second, I consider a more detailed explanation, but I’m still trying to figure out what happened. A firework – a jumping jack or a crackerjack – and the next moment I hit the ground. Not for the first time, I’m confronted by a part of me that’s insubordinate to my ordinary will. Something happens – a casual event unlocks a hidden force – leaving the conscious mind racing to catch up. Inwardly, I feel a flicker of unease. Who is this other that inhabits me? This aspect of my nature that moves faster than I can think – what is it? And what else might it do?
The Sunday school teacher’s still standing there, looking at me with a glassy smile. Perhaps I’m imagining things – drunk, sick or crazy – it doesn’t matter. I raise my crumpled cup, and give him my best imitation of a smile.
‘Time for another.’ The Sunday school teacher nods.
‘It’s good stuff,’ I add – just for the hell of it, ramming the point home – and then I turn again towards the scent of cloves and cinnamon, beckoning in the dark.
It’s summer in England, and the fields and hedgerows are silent in the heat. I’m walking along a footpath that follows a slow-moving river, I come to a bridge and pause for a few moments in the shade, watching sinuous bands of sunlight rippling and reflecting on the underside of the bridge.
A sudden metallic roar hits me – fear loosens my legs so they’re like water – and I almost slip into the river.
A train going over a bridge – the noise overhead, like the thunder of a gunship – beside an English river. I’m still shaking as the sound of the train disappears in the distance, and the summer’s warmth reasserts its drowsy peace.
The Times asked me to be bureau chief in Tokyo. I was away for a year or so, and it was hard. I missed my young son and his mother – we tried to talk on the phone almost every day, but it wasn’t the same – and when I got back home it was different. Words – arguments – and tantrums so terrible they shook me to the core. I’d never experienced such violent anger from another person. My hands trembled and I became clumsy – loading the dishwasher, I dropped and smashed three glasses in as many days. After each eruption it took several hours to recover equilibrium – writing was almost impossible.
Was the problem with her, or me? Or was it her problem with me? The arguments were numbingly repetitive, always spiralling in towards one point – her idée fixe – the question that was really an accusation.
‘When are you going to go out and get a proper job?’
Eventually, I said I was ready to leave, but she asked me to stay – so I did. I didn’t want to go, but it was becoming a mad existence. I loved my son – I loved his mother, too – but her rages were tearing everything apart. I would have liked to talk about the documentary with her, or the fireworks at the vicarage, but somehow it didn’t happen. With everything else that was going on, there wasn’t a chance of talking about the other strange dimension behind the facade of daily life – the peripheral sense of impending doom, like thunder on the horizon, or the sound of helicopters in the distance – an uneasiness shading into fear.
First the helicopters, then the bombing. The helicopters are looking for vehicles, and concentrations of men and animals – it’s bazaar day, and people have come into town from the surrounding country. As the helicopters get closer, everyone – men, women, children – start running in all directions.
It wasn’t the sort of thing one could talk about – just like that – with anyone. With other men it could be tricky – just mentioning the war seemed to make some people uncomfortable. Maybe, secretly, they felt a touch of embarrassment not to have been there, or maybe it was guilt. Or envy. Or boredom. Women were more receptive, but most were parents and war isn’t the chirpiest topic of conversation at the school gate. The ones who were single, understandably, had other priorities. With the few men and women who were there during the war, a rough-and-ready esprit de corps made talking about the odd memory – jitters, or jumpiness – seem trivial and unimportant. The military types didn’t have much time for intellectualising, anyway – action was more their game – and no one in the army has any time for a whinger. It wasn’t a matter of grin and bear it – nothing that bad – nor ‘a Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties’, whatever that might mean. The jaunty ordinariness of some special service types seemed a good enough way of dealing with the blues. Or one could make do with the even-toned observation of a mucker from my days in Peshawar.
‘Stuff happens – if you don’t like it, don’t think about it.’
Easy to say, hard to do.
We shared a landscape – some of us even knew the same mountains, caves and valleys. We also shared a knowledge of another shadowy place, where images of the past remained – like primitive relics of another world – silent reminders of the best and worst of human nature. One could go there, if one wanted, but what was the point? It was all in the past, and too much trouble. Leave the shadows in the dark, where they’re invisible.
There may be virtue in silence.
Photograph © Allyeska Photography